Directed by Jane Campion. Starring Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, Anna Paquin. (1993)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 19, 1993
If Madame Bovary were ever to find a Room of her Own, the result might be something like The Piano. But, then again, probably not, since The Piano is a wholly original achievement. Writer-director Jane Campion (Sweetie, An Angel at My Table) has once again created an indelible screen portrait of a woman skirting the fringes of the social norms. The movie is both spare and severe, lush and sensuous, and it is not an easy movie to describe. Otherwise we could just say it's a story about a mute, 19th century woman, Ada (Hunter), whose pre-arranged marriage to a man she's never met brings her to New Zealand, along with her young daughter and her beloved piano. When her new husband, Stewart (Neill), meets her the day after her arrival he insists that the piano remain on the beach since it is too difficult to carry over the rough and muddy terrain. Their marriage is off to a bad start. In time, she manages to convince her husband's right-hand man Baines (Keitel), a mysteriuous white man with Maori face markings, to retrieve her piano. In return he wants lessons, one for every piano key. She bargains him down to one lesson for every black key. But it's not lessons he's really after. Moved by her music and fascinated by her devotion, he simply wants to “do things” while she plays. And from there grows an erotic attraction and passionate hunger that surprises them both. More to the point, however, is that which is left unsaid in The Piano. Much of the movie is shrouded in mystery or left to conjecture. Why did Ada suddenly stop speaking when she was six years old, despite the fact that she can hear perfectly? Who is the father of her daughter? How does the sign language through which she and her daughter communicate when they want to shut out the rest of the world serve as one additional meta-language? How does the piano serve as a transference of her self-expression? How does her severe self-presentation (perfectly representative of the time, though) jibe with her uncontrollable passion? What passes through her husband's mind as she rebuffs him, only later to learn of her deceit? And Baines, what provokes his sudden need for intimacy? The questions go on and on and that's what makes The Piano such a haunting pleasure. There are also the performances; Keitel and Hunter deserve every accolade in the business. They are both so revealing and so natural that watching them almost becomes unnerving. The wonder of The Piano is that such an outwardly simple story could emerge into such a complex swirl of lingering memories.